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Hunger in Waiting

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"Inoue pack is moving." Stacker's voice rumbled under her ear, but Mako curled closer and thought about pretending not to hear.

They spent so little time like this – sitting side by side with her head on his chest, his arm around her shoulders – now that she was what he called a young lady. Only the few days before and after her change were left to her, and in those skin-scratching, touch-starved times, she wished she were twelve again and could crawl into his lap and feel his stubble scratching through her hair. On the worst days, she wished he were a wolf too.

Finally, Mako asked, "Where?"

Inoue and Mori packs had been friendly, once upon a time, or so her mother had said. Mako had never met them, but it wasn't the first time her adopted father had mentioned their whereabouts.

Her head lifted then fell again with Stacker's half shrug. "Seoul. Behind the Korean wall."

She didn't ask why. There wasn't enough of Tokyo left to defend, and Kyoto, where their own wall was going up, had its own packs. If her family had lived, that could have mattered to Mako. "They won't stay there long," she pointed out. She knew by now the concerns behind his careful announcements, and she attempted to brush them away just as gently.

Her drives could push her into the arms of every woman in the shatterdome, to study jōjutsu until she could no longer stand, until her skin started to split, her fingers grew to claws, and she locked herself in her rooms for three days and came out weary and still needing that touch, and still Stacker and his Rangers would be all the pack she ever wanted, if not all she needed.

Mako thought he knew that too, but still wanted to offer her the out. He would always imply that she could leave to find a pack, and she would always act as though she didn't understand.

"No, they won't," Stacker agreed, and she could tell by the resigned note in his voice that he would let the subject drop, for another month. It occurred to her that this might be the last time he asked, no matter what happened.

"We're not staying here long either," she said, but fell silent as a sub-vocal growl rolled through his chest. She smiled to herself. Line the two of them up and ask which of them was the wolf, and no one would point to Mako Mori.

"No," was all he'd say, and they left the rest unspoken. They'd wait out her change, and then they'd go. Hong Kong was waiting; their last hope on Earth.

Her skin never felt like it fit right after the change, but Mako didn't have time to sweat it out. Stacker was still in Alaska, Ranger hunting, and Choi had just told her that Cherno Alpha was five hours ahead of schedule, and they hadn't finished reconfiguring Bay 4 for a Mark I. The Australian wall had gone down that afternoon, and now what they did here mattered more than ever.

Mako didn't have time to meet the Kaidonovskys, either, yet here she was, smoothing her hair flat, watching the conn-pod doors swing open. The lock-step swagger of experienced Rangers hadn't impressed her since she was a teenager – when she'd watched them move with surety and grace, and felt green with wanting, not really understanding what you had to give up to get that – but with the Kaidonovskys, it was different. They'd had to wait two hours for the slings to bring them in, and most of the Rangers Mako had met would be spitting nails by now, and these two just rolled over it, as they'd rolled over every impediment and inconvenience in their six years on the perimeter. It occurred to Mako that most of the other Rangers she'd met were also now dead.

Sasha Kaidonovskya narrowed her eyes, then nodded in acceptance when Mako lifted her chin and didn't offer any excuses.

"Welcome back to Hong Kong," Mako said, bowing first to Sasha then to Aleksis.

"Our quarters are the same." It wasn't a question, and Sasha only inclined her head instead of bowing, but she did brush shoulders with Mako as the Kaidonovskys strode toward their ground crew. Sasha's hips didn't sway as she departed, and nothing in the curve of her mouth had suggested anything but mild annoyance, but Mako had known her long enough to understand that any contact had meaning.

Mako bit her lip as she watched them go, considering the implied invitation. It wouldn't be the first time it had been extended, nor that Mako had accepted. Co-drops with Anchorage had been rare enough that she didn't know Sasha well, but that was true of a lot of women Mako met with for sake of convenience.

She knew that she didn't have the time, but her skin crawled at the thought of going back to Bay 1 and having to stand hip to hip with to Constanza Martinez – the smell of her hair filling the compartment, their arms brushing as they went over the muscle strands in the right hand yet another time – all while knowing that Technician Martinez was utterly, painfully straight. It would be easy to take half an hour away to meet Sasha, and Mako could start fresh after that.

Mako didn't stop to wash or change, but Sasha was in the Kaidonovskys' quarters by the time she got there. The ground crew had taken her drivesuit, and she'd already half peeled out of her battered old flightsuit; as Mako stood against the hatch, hands pressed flat between the metal and the small of her back, Sasha pulled off her bra and tossed it onto a growing laundry pile.

Mako watched her undress without comment. Her skin looked as unnaturally pale as her hair, paler even than someone from so far north should look, but it also had the smoothness of someone who got enough to eat, even after working as hard as she did. Naked, she locked her hands together and stretched over her head, arching her back until her spin popped. It wasn't all for show, but Mako swallowed as the curve of Sasha's spine thrust her breasts out. In the cramped cabin, they were already close enough that Mako could have leaned forward and taken a nipple between her teeth.

More than anything she wanted to bite. Even now, as the pull of the change faded, she wished she could lay Sasha out and mark every centimetre of her skin red – oh, how the blood would show against that fair, fair skin, beading up before Mako licked it away. If Sasha were a wolf, she might have, and Sasha might have bitten her back.

The world being what it was, Mako jerked her chin up again and met Sasha's eyes, knowing that her expression made her desires clear.

"Ah, little wolf," Sasha said, regret tingeing her voice, "the things I would let you do."

"I can think of some other things to do," Mako said. She shrugged out of her jacket and let Sasha unzip her coveralls. She barely had her tank top pulled over her head before Sasha had a hand down her shorts. The rest of the month, Mako would have thought this was too fast, but now she leaned against Sasha so that their breasts pressed together together, cool skin to cool skin.

Sasha kissed her; as the ball of her hand rolled gently across her mound, her lips found Mako's earlobe. "Missed you," she whispered, then bit down.

Instead of biting back, Mako dug her nails into Sasha's arms and pressed her face against her shoulder until her vision turned red. Her hands slid down to that lean ass and squeezed, dragging Sasha down onto Mako's lifted thigh. Sasha slid two fingers into Mako in response, and Mako had to press her mouth to Sasha's collar bone to keep from screaming.

She pushed back fiercely, propelling their joined bodies onto the bed. Sasha's fingers stayed inside her, and her thumb started working Mako's clit.

Mako was straddling her hips now, and the edge of dominance made her bare her teeth and growl. With both hands on Sasha's shoulders, she could watch her face from above, grind down into her hand, bend to put her lips to that long, white throat. The shorts were in the way, but she didn't want to wriggle out of them either. This felt too slow as it was.

Below her, Sasha grinned in return and said, "That all you got?"

Mako half expected to be flipped on her back, but instead Sasha's fingers hooked and slowly dragged out of her, catching the edge of her cunt before her thumbnail flicked across her clit. Mako gasped and felt fingers pressing between her lips. Sasha was daring her to bite, riding the edge of danger with the wolf and trusting the woman with her life. She could do nothing but suck at the fingers in her mouth and ride the ones under her. She whimpered and writhed, wanting to let the climax take her, but at the same time needing to draw this out a little longer.

Sasha didn't let her have that choice, her fingers manipulating Mako's whole body between them. The quick circling of the pad of her thumb brought Mako to the edge of climax, just as the fingers pulled out and slid slowly across her clit as well, easing her down again. Mako sucked harder, trying to tell her to speed the hell up again, and she heard Sasha chuckle under her, right before she did. Three fingers pushed inside her now, and the stretch and the low dirty mutter of mat right next to her ear – a puff of warm breath elevating each profanity – and then the final blunt nail right on her clit pushed Mako over.

The fingers slid out of her mouth just before she came, and Mako ground her teeth in lieu of biting or screaming. A moment of utter satisfaction followed, and when her heart stopped pounding loudly enough to drown out a reactor, Mako found that her skin almost fit again.

She dropped down across Sasha, pressing a kiss to her forehead, then nudging her until she rolled on her side and Mako could slip a hand between her legs while at the same time kissing her back and playing with her nipples. Sasha had the stamina of a marathon runner, and it took Mako a quarter of an hour of sliding touches and sudden pressure to bring her off. Sasha had never made a sound when she came, but Mako could feel the little hitch in her breath through her own chest, and feel the slight quiver in her thighs. Mako stroked gently for a few moments more, then rolled on her back, idly sucking her fingers.

"Always good to see you this time of the month," Sasha said wryly. She wiggled around in the narrow bed, letting Mako rest her head on her shoulder, and put a hand on her hair, not stroking, just resting it there.

Mako listened to the quietening rhythm of her heart and considered what to say to that. It wasn't that she didn't like to see Sasha in these times – she was reliable and safe and knew just what to do – but coming this close to trust, especially so close to the change, only made her want a true pack all the more. It was almost easier with strangers then to form this half-bond with someone she could almost love.

Almost as if Sasha knew what she was thinking, as if a human ever could, she asked, "How did you become a wolf?"

Mako sucked in a shocked breath. It wasn't for humans to ask about wolf things, especially not something as personal as how one was bitten. However, Sasha never had been one for conventions, so after letting out a small sigh, Mako replied simply, "My parents were Mori pack. I was born to it."

"And how would a human join a pack?"

Though Mako tensed to listen and breath in their scent, she couldn't gauge Sasha's tone. It seemed like idle curiosity, and her heart rate had fallen to normal under Mako's cheek.

She decided to ask, just in case. "Are you and Sasha looking?" Her head lifted and fell with Sasha's shrug, which she thought she could read as probably not. Mako hesitated, but it wasn't information she couldn't find elsewhere, to varying degrees of accuracy, and it would be better for Sasha to hear the facts. "It's depends on the country, sometimes the pack. In Japan, a member of the pack would have to stand up for you, and the alpha would consider how you would fit the pack. Then you would live with us as a human for three full moons. Only after that – if you still wanted it, and the alpha agreed – would a wolf bite you." There was also a great deal of paperwork – these were not the days of masterless lone wolves and bandit packs – but Sasha was unlikely to care about that.

"Huh," was all Sasha said, but she seemed satisfied and didn't press further.

Eventually, Mako snuggled down against her chest, letting go of the last of the tension, and asked where Alexsis was.

"With Cherno," Sasha said. "Our interface is bogging down. We'll need to take her out after the system reboot."

"I'll tell Choi."

Sasha nodded, her cheek brushing Mako's hair. "What about you? Has the Marshal put you in a Jeager?"

"Not yet," was all Mako would say. She and Stacker had both said all they could on that topic, and it was none of Sasha's business anyway.

"The wolf cannot matter any more." Sasha didn't make it a question, but as a statement it was too obvious to be anything but a thrust in search of information. By the turn of the next moon, being incapacitated for three nights out of twenty eight would make little difference, one way or another, but then, that had never really been Stacker's reason for keeping her out of a conn-pod.

Mako rolled off the bed and bent to find her clothes. "No," she said. "It can't."

Later, she regretted leaving so abruptly, but, at the time, there'd seemed nothing else to say.

Days later, Mako sat next to Raleigh, their fingers not quite touching, and kept her eye's fixed on the glowing heart of the old Jeager in front of her. The drift had been strong, worse than she'd feared. She'd slid into his mind and felt everything he felt, remembered everything that he remembered, known that he was feeling the same thing, and despite that, he'd reached out to her. In the drift, for the first time in nine years, she'd felt like a pack, a real pack, not her cobbled together little family. The disloyalty of that should have choked her. That it didn't only piled on another weight of guilt.

She knew that she should explain some of this to Raleigh. Even if he'd been in her head, he wouldn't have had the context to understand, and now she owed him as well, for standing up for her, and for standing with her in the drift, but she couldn't imagine where to begin. He didn't seem inclined to say anything else, his eyes, like hers, fixed on the mechanical titan rising out of the scaffolding.

Mako pursed her lips, and finally said, "Being a wolf is different."

"No kidding." Raleigh didn't quite laugh, but she could hear the smile.

"That's not what I meant," she said. He'd seen the change itself, and what surrounded it; he'd even seen a little of what pack meant, but she didn't think he knew the whole of it. "A wolf by herself for this long, it only happens if there's something wrong with her. She should die with her pack, or die for them, after. Humans don't understand vengeance."

He didn't say anything for so long that she cast a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, but let it flick away at the heartsick look on his face. She saw that enough looking at Stacker. He'd caught her looking anyway, and said, "I guess we don't." His word's came out slowly, as if he were figuring out which ones to use as he spoke. "Yancy only ever wanted to protect me, and I protected him right back, but now that he's gone what's the use? He's still dead, no matter what I do."

So was her pack, but Mako knew what her mother had taught her. "Being a wolf is different," she repeated. "We're not meant to be alone."

"Yeah," Raleigh agreed, and she wished he hadn't.

After the helicopters picked them off of Raleigh's escape pod, Doctor Kim had the nurses take away their drive suits, scrub both Rangers raw, and keep them under observation for twenty four hours.

Despite the exhaustion that set into her bones and made her hands shake, Mako couldn't sleep. She lay on her back under the heated hospital blankets, and stared into the dim rafters above her. A spider had built its web between them, and now the low lights of the medical wing gleamed in the strands. In the next cubicle, Raleigh snored softly.

She wished she could find tears. They'd seemed so close to the surface these past few days, but now, faced with incomparable loss, they stuck in the back of her throat. Herc had embraced her when she disembarked, pressing his face into her neck for two fierce sobs before he let her go and drew back behind an implacable wall. She'd been trying not to think about it since, but the image stayed with her: the feel of his good arm around the small of her back, the smell of his perspiration, the look in his eyes. If Dr. Kim would let her go, she could at least share the burden of keeping the dome running and fending off the building media circus. The press would like her better than Herc anyway: the Marshal's daughter grown into an avenging warrior, the novice Ranger who killed four Kaiju in three hours. If that didn't keep them busy, finding out about the wolf would. Stacker had protected her from that before, but she doubted Herc could, or would.

Dr. Kim probably wouldn't take an inability to sleep as a reason to release her, and Mako didn't want to risk sedation. As worn down as she was, she'd sleep for days, and not wake until it was all over. Whatever it might be. She put the fingers of her right hand to the radial pulse of her left, following her heart and trying to slow it through pure concentration. If she could at least seem rested next time a nurse came by...

A muffled commotion broke out on the far side of the bay: wheels of a gurney squeaking, hushed voices of the medical staff, a low count and thud as they moved a body to a bed. Whoever the patient was wasn't mobile.

Mako rolled off the cot, pulling the blanket off and wrapping it around her waist as she stood. It would be a good time to leave, she decided, while they were busy, and once she was dressed and in the thick of things, they might not be able to force her to return. She could do her duty, protect the few remnants of her simulated pack. There were scrubs in the adjacent supply cabinet, and once she had those on, no one even noticed as she slid along the back wall, walking swiftly but calmly toward the door, just another member of staff. Dr. Kim, two orderlies and a handful of nurses and technicians clustered around the bed nearest the door, too busy to notice.

A sideways glance gave her a flash of bleach-blonde hair, now rusty with old blood, and half a glimpse of a familiar profile before a nurse blocked her view. "Sasha," she whispered. She should keep moving, change and get up to LOSCENT, then find out what was happening from Tendo or Herc, but the sight transfixed her.

Dr. Kim was calling for an x-ray machine, and as he looked for the technician, his attention slide past Mako, then froze and returned. "Ms Mori," he snapped. "Stay right there."

Mako ignored him, but only to get a little closer, staying out of the way, but angling in to see though the press of medical staff. "She's alive," Mako said.

"Yes," Dr. Kim said shortly. "Maybe not for long."


Dr. Kim shrugged, but one of the orderlies said, "Only one escape pod, badly damaged."

Mako nodded, backing away until she found a cot, then sank onto the edge. She watched Dr. Kim and his staff work, not listening to the words so much as the tone: good for x-rays, good for ultrasound, bad for heart rate and respiration. Mako's fingers felt her pulse again, higher now, but not more than from being up and about. It should be pounding, she knew; she should feel enough excitement to run to LOSCENT and back before Dr. Kim even noticed she was gone.

Instead she felt separated from reality by five degrees, and everything she looked at was askew. In the past few days, so much had been lost and gained and lost again that she couldn't take it in.

She looked up, head still spinning, to see Dr. Kim standing over her. "How is she?" Mako asked.

Dr. Kim's mouth twisted sideways, non-committal. "Hypothermia, shock, broken ribs, a concussion that'll need to be watched."

Mako nodded. "She will recover?" She'd meant to say it like it was already true, but couldn't keep her voice from rising. She clenched her hands around the edge of the mattress, striving for better control.

"Possibly," Dr. Kim said, unwilling to commit. "Do you know her well, Ms. Mori?"

That was polite. It was impossible to keep bed partners secret in the Corps. "I do," Mako confirmed.

"Would you sit with her then?" Dr. Kim asked. "We're raising her core temperature, and she may wake at any time. It would help to have someone familiar nearby."

Again, Mako nodded, and followed Dr. Kim to the bed beside Sasha's. He installed her there, with the head of the bed raised and warmed blankets over her legs. Mako wondered if he was hoping that she'd fall asleep in the meantime, but she knew that she would keep watch all night if she had to. She didn't have it in her to sleep.

In the adjacent bed, Sasha lay mummified in reflective blankets and warming pads, an oxygen mask covering half her face. The crescents of still skin visible had the colour and consistency of onion paper. Bruises ringed her closed eyes.

Mako sighed and hugged herself, listening to the steady beep of the monitors. Dr. Kim had said her vitals were improving, but it must be slowly if at all. They seemed to faint to Mako, below acceptable limits.

The night wore on. Herc came and went, talking only briefly with Dr. Kim, but standing over Sasha's bed for a long time. Mako could almost see it written on his face, Why her, and not my son? She hadn't wondered the same, she couldn't even get her mind around the thought of Stacker being alive. They'd said goodbye, and now he was gone. She wondered if Sasha and Aleksis had had time, but then they'd been drifting when it happened.

Across the room, Raleigh slept on. Mako let him, better to wait for an outcome, good or bad, and not wake him for a vigil that could well end in more tragedy. She wanted to keep this to herself, in any case, to give herself time to nurse the little glow she felt watching Sasha's unconscious form. It wasn't hope exactly, but a deep-running possessiveness: Sasha was her pack too, and Mako didn't want to share her. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them under the blankets, trying to hold close the feeling.

Dr. Kim came by and checked them both every half hour, but seemed content to let her be otherwise.

Sasha started to stir towards mid morning, and Mako would have again lost sight of her in a flurry of hospital staff had she not slipped form the bed and inserted herself at the bedside. She took the hand that didn't have the IV in it, and cradled it between both of hers. The softness of Rangers' skin always surprised her. They seemed such hard people, but aside from the run of callouses along the joint of palm and fingers and the inflammation where the circuitry suit connected, her skin was unmarred by physical labour.

It was also still too cold. Mako pressed the hand to her the V of bare skin exposed by her scrubs, and the chill felt shocking against her sternum. At first the hand hung limp and heavy between her hands, despite the flicker behind Sasha's eyelids and the steady increase of her heart rate. All at once, Sasha's fingers spread, flattening against Mako's chest. Her eyes not open yet, her face turned slightly toward Mako, and her other hand came up to tug at the oxygen mask.

When an orderly tried to still her, Sasha snapped awake and punched him in the jaw. The blow knocked him back a few paces, and cleared the space around the bed, but didn't loosen her connection with Mako. Her grey eyes were fixed on Mako's face, not even glancing at the man she'd just struck.

Mako opened her mouth to reassure her, but the words caught in her throat. "You're in the dome," she said finally. "You were hurt, but you're getting better."

Sasha's nod looked more like a flinch, a bare twitch of her chin. "Alexsis is dead."

It wasn't a question, but Mako said, "Yes," then added, "we haven't found his pod."

"He is dead," Sasha repeated. Bleak finality filled her tone. He died in the drift then.

Mako squeezed Sasha's hand, knowing there was nothing that she could say to soften either of their pain. She wanted to howl with her, to let the resonance of their cries sooth them both, but that was a wolf thing.

"The city?" Sasha asked, pressing on. Behind her, Dr. Kim hovered impatiently.

"We defended the city," Mako told her. She took a breath before saying, "We closed the breach."

Sasha let out a long slow sigh, not quite a death rattle, but still when her eyes closed, fear spiked through Mako. The steady beep of the monitors reassured her. She looked to Dr. Kim, and saw him caught in the same moment of uncertainty before he moved in and said, "Ranger Kaidonovskya?"

Her eyes opened again, and she blinked once and her throat worked, but her eyes didn't so much as glisten, no matter how tightly her mouth turned down. Her hand slid down, pressing the palm over Mako's heart and resting there for a moment before she stated, "You would like to run some tests."

They made Mako let go of Sasha's hand but could not shift her from the bedside until they were done. The steel bolts secured the beds to the floor, but Mako captured a gurney and pushed it up against Sasha's bed before locking the wheels and strapping the rails together. They fell asleep with their fingers intertwined.

When Mako woke, Dr. Kim told her that she'd slept for ten hours, and if her test results were acceptable, she was free to go. They were, and Mako went. Sasha slept on without her.

She hesitated before entering LOSCENT, taking a deep breath and ordering herself not to look for Stacker, or any of the others, and knowing that she wouldn't be able suppress the urge to sniff for them anyway. A wolf always knew where her pack was, and it was time to accept that they were gone again. Mako stepped inside. Stacker wasn't there.

Raleigh was, however, his two-day beard and tatty bomber jacket looking immaculate next to Herc, who obviously hadn't slept since the beach closed. Mako caught Raleigh's eye, and they didn't have to say anything to agree that putting their Marshal to bed was priority number one.

After that, Mako combed her hair and stepped into the media storm. She didn't step out again for two days.

It turned out that Herc could and had kept the wolf from them, but the entire press corps was trying to sniff out a love story between Mako and Raleigh, and they didn't want to take "lesbian" for an answer.

By the time Herc got up, put his foot down, and put the entire Shatterdome off limits to reporters – something Tendo had been threatening to do for days – Mako suspected that she'd be forever remembered as the woman who was not sleeping with Raleigh Becket, rather than part of the team that had saved humanity from the Kaiju.

At least the breach was still closed.

When it was her turn to sleep, Mako found Sasha in her quarters.

She was dressed in scrubs, standing in the middle of the room, arms limp at her sides, and eyes focused somewhere near Siberia. Mako hadn't thought she'd registered the hatch opening and closing until Sasha said, "Dr. Kim released me."

That she hadn't wanted to return to the quarters she'd shared with Alexsis, or indeed request new ones was obvious.

Mako asked, "Do you want share the bed?" then let Sasha settle in first after she nodded. Mako curled half on top of her and dropped into a deep and instant sleep.

"I don't wish to talk to anyone," Sasha told her the next morning. They sat cross legged, facing each other from either end of the bunk, with Mako's stash of energy bars between them.

"Okay," Mako said, though she didn't know if Sasha meant reporters or psychologists. "I'll tell Marshal Hansen."

"Thank you."

Mako let Sasha chew through her last chocolate-peanut butter bar before asking, "Have you thought about what you want to do?"


When she didn't say anything else, Mako let it drop. It wasn't like she had a better answer. Raleigh had said – albeit with unconvincing enthusiasm – that any Ranger still standing could write their own ticket to do whatever they wanted. Then he'd looked at her significantly, and not even their time in the drift had allowed Mako to read the sentiment behind that expression. It could have meant anything between he wanted them to stay together forever and raise baby Rangers to he thought she should move to Japan and find herself a pack. That she wanted both, neither and everything in between, all at the same time, wasn't helping her make a choice. She'd spent her whole life trying to avenge her pack, and now that she had, she had no idea what the point of life was supposed to be. Lone wolves weren't meant to live even this long.

Banana PowerBars were her least favourite, but Mako trudged though one anyway, breathing in the silence between them. Sasha could never have been described as chatty, but Mako could feel a tension in the air between them, far different from their usual easy companionship.

Still, her breath caught when Sasha asked, "Having a pack, is it like drifting?"

Not even Raleigh had asked her that, even though she'd felt him wondering, he'd known it was too personal. But to Sasha, Mako found herself trying to describe how it was and it wasn't. It wasn't easy to find words for it, something that was an inextricable part of her, but a part she hadn't known since childhood. "It has the reliability, but not the telepathy," she said. "But you do know what the whole pack is thinking; it's just not so precise. You know whatever you do, they'll back you up, and you know you'll never do anything to shame them. Everyone has a role in a pack. You know who you are."

"Thank you," Sasha said again. "For explaining. And for the food." She didn't bring it up again, but Mako could feel the other half of the conversation looming over her like a Kaiju.

Sasha was supposedly on "light duties," but no one seemed to know what that meant, and she was still in Mako's room when Mako left for the showers. By the time she got to LOSCENT, however, Sasha was already there, talking to Raleigh. Their heads were bent together, and everyone else was giving them a few metres.

Mako turned and went down to the labs to check on Newt and Hermann, but they were fielding a dozen new scientists and all the breach monitoring equipment. By the time Mako got back up top, Sasha was gone, and Raleigh looked like a kicked puppy. He didn't say anything, and she didn't ask.

"I think we have to stay," he said at lunch. Finding a table in the mess wasn't a problem anymore. Indeed, they had one to themselves.

"Here?" Mako asked, keeping her eyes on her tray.

He shrugged. "I mean in the Corps. We're the only Ranger team still standing, and we don't know if they'll open the breach again."

"We need a Jeager."

"You, me and Tendo, we could build anything. You know we'd get the funding."

"I need think about it," she said, though she already had been. She wondered if they were considering staying because Raleigh was right and the world still needed them, or if they were just manufacturing reasons to put off facing the real world. She wished she knew what Stacker would have wanted, but as much as he'd wanted her to find a pack, he'd also shown her what dedication to duty meant. "If I went back to Tokyo," she didn't call it home, "would you come with me?"

Raleigh made a face like he'd bitten a lemon; answer enough.

Sasha showed up back in Mako's room around midnight. Mako rolled up against the wall to make room for her, but Sasha only sat on the edge of the bed. The room was utterly dark, but Mako didn't need to see Sasha's face to know that she was barely holding together. The tremor in her hand as it rested on Mako's shoulder and roughness of her voice told everything.

"I reach out for him, and he's not there."

Mako nodded, knowing Sasha would sense her movement, even in the dark, but afraid if she moved that Sasha would startle and vanish. "I still try to find my pack," she said. Raleigh knew, and Stacker must have, but she'd never told another soul. "I smell for them when I go into a room, and I listen for them at night, even when I'm asleep." She realised that that was likely why Sasha was sleeping with her, so she didn't wake and think Alexis might be there. The three of them had never shared a bed. Sasha didn't answer, and Mako continued to spill words into the dark. "I didn't think it could be the same with a human, but now every time the intercom clicks, I think I'll hear the Marshal." No need to clarify which one; it could never be anyone other than Stacker.

Sasha said nothing for a long time, and Mako lay perfectly still, listening to the overlapping sounds of their breath. Finally, Sasha asked, "How do you get a wolf to bite you?"

She meant Mako, but wanted to leave her room to say it wasn't possible. It was astonishingly kind given how badly she must want this.

"You know that. It told you," Mako said, remembering another conversation that had held too much weight.

"What if there are no rules left?"

"They're not rules. They are traditions. They have a purpose." Mako didn't know how to explain that it was only a monster who would bite a woman so bound in grief, one desperate to feel anything besides her own loss. Indeed, it would be an almost tragic monster, one ensured in her own griefs and loneliness, to do such a thing, something from the kind of folk tale that ended badly for everyone. The Kaiju might have stripped Mako bare, first of her pack, now of her family, but they hadn't reduced her to that.

"Ah." It was more a sigh than a word, or a lament at the death one last hope. If Sasha's president had called, it hadn't been with the offer of a job she'd wanted, or if it had, not with one she'd wanted to take on without Alexsis. Perhaps, after all those years on the perimeter, she no longer wanted to do anything without Alexsis. I reach out for him, and he's not there, she'd said. Mako had never asked where Alexis was and found Sasha without an answer. Sasha rose, turning away, possibly for the last time.

Mako's chest tightened at the thought of Sasha returning to Russia alone. She now understood Raleigh's distaste at the idea of her leaving for Japan, and why Herc pointedly hadn't asked any of them what their plans were. There were only four people left who understood, and right now, whether the Kaiju returned or not, they needed to stay together.

"Wait," she said. Her hand missed Sasha in the dark, her fingers just trailing her shirt. "Sasha, wait!"

Funny how, given that Sasha's boot's hadn't made a sound, Mako could hear them not moving. She waited, poised, but didn't move as Mako rolled to sit on the edge of the bed, then reached up into the dark until she found Sasha's shoulder. Her back was to Mako, and she shivered as Mako cupped her palm on the joint of neck and shoulder, a place Mako had taken care not to bite on so many nights.

"There is precedent," she said, weighing each word carefully, "Under special circumstances, young wolves can find a new territory. They can start a new pack." Precedent especially for a Ranger who could write her own ticket, or for two of them. "But there is still tradition."

"We must wait," Sasha said, but it was resolve that filled her voice, not resignation.

"Yes. We must both be sure." Mako stood and wrapped her arms around Sasha's waist, pressing her face against her strong back. Sasha dropped her hands to cover Mako's. "And there is paperwork. If you're planning to live with me for three full moons," Mako said, "we will have to request larger quarters."